Hermione carefully helped Harry onto the sofa, as her parents reached the bottom of the stairs and turned on the lights. Clutching his hand, he looked up at Hermione's face and felt strangely comforted by the concern he saw there.
"Are you all right, Harry?"
"Yeah. I'm just a little shaken up," he said, cradling his arm to his chest. "But I think my wrist is sprained."
"I'll get some ice for it," announced Hermione's mother, and she walked into the adjoining kitchen.
"What happened?" Hermione asked as she sat down on the sofa next to Harry. She was in her nightdress and hadn't had time to put on a dressing gown. This nightdress was different from the kind she wore at school; much more skin was showing, so much that he had a hard time processing her question, much less realizing that she was talking.
"I—uh—well...." He shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts and started over. "We were attacked. Death Eaters started pulling people from their houses and threatened to kill them if I didn't come out." His vision blurred, and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
Mrs. Granger appeared and handed an ice pack to Harry. "Here you are, dear."
"Thank you," he muttered shakily and placed the pack on his wrist.
He looked back to Hermione and said, "They were using children, Hermione, children!" His eyes wandered aimlessly to the floor, and he said more calmly, "There were these two little girls, one was only about four, and they tied them up, and they were going to kill them!" His voice cracked, and he focused on Hermione again.
Harry was shaking as he tried to keep pressure on the ice pack. Hermione placed a hand on his shoulder and wiped tears of her own from her face. They stared at each other for a second, and then Hermione grabbed him into a careful hug. He lost all semblance of control and sobbed miserably into her shoulder.
"I didn't..." Harry started, still having difficulty finding the right words. "I tried to save them, but.... There were so many...." He brought his good hand to his face and continued to weep.
They sat like that for a while, with Harry trying to come to terms with what had just happened. Harry felt horrible about leaving those girls to die and desperately hoped that the Order had been able to keep them alive.
Finally, Harry's tears dried up, and he pulled tentatively away from Hermione. They looked at each other again, and Harry could tell that, despite her red and puffy eyes, she was deep in thought. Harry slowly reached out a hand and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
"Thanks, Hermione. I'm glad you were here for me. I needed a friend just now."
"You're welcome, Harry. You looked like you needed a hug." They shared a bit of nervous laughter and sat back against the sofa. Looking at Hermione properly, he realized that sitting across from a nightdress-clad Hermione this evening was the last thing he'd have planned on. The tension seemed to lift as he focused on his best friend's face. Turning to look away from Harry, Hermione jumped a little in realization that her parents were still there. Harry's face heated as he became conscious of how intently he had been staring at their daughter.
"Oh! I'm sorry. Harry, you remember my parents, right? This is my mum, Anne, and my dad, Mark." At these words, Hermione's parents nodded their heads in his direction.
"Hello, Harry," they chorused.
Harry adjusted the ice pack so that his wrist pinned it against his chest; it was slightly painful, but he was then able to extend his right hand. "Nice to see you again, Mr. and Mrs. Granger."
"Please call us Mark and Anne, Harry," said Hermione's mother. They took his hand in turn and shook it warmly. "Nice to see you, too, Harry. We've been hearing a lot about you, of course." Anne glanced at Hermione and then back to Harry.
His face colored a little at the implied compliment. "I hope Hermione left out some of the worst bits."
Hermione chuckled, and Mr. Granger said, "I'm sure she hasn't told us everything, but I can't imagine that you would be capable of doing anything too terrible."
Harry's face colored even deeper, and he looked at Hermione sheepishly.
A slight crack broke into the conversation, and all the Grangers jumped. Harry would have as well, had he not been so weary. The figure of Albus Dumbledore appeared in the entryway of the house, and all eyes turned to his face.
"Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Granger, delighted to see you again," he said. The adults shook hands, and Dumbledore turned to Harry.
"Well, I see you made it here safely, Harry. Any problems with the Portkey?"
Harry shot up from the sofa, anxious to get some answers. "What happened to the two little girls? They were about to kill them—"
Interrupting, the Headmaster said, "They are unharmed and have had their memories erased. They will not remember anything about tonight's incident."
Harry's whole body relaxed when Dumbledore said this, and he fell back onto the sofa in relief.
Gesturing at the ice pack on Harry's arm, Dumbledore asked, "Were you injured, Harry?"
Feeling foolish about the whole thing, Harry was reluctant to mention his wrist, but Hermione seemed to catch on to this and interjected, "He sprained it when the Portkey landed him on our floor. Can you heal it, Professor?"
Smiling his thanks in her direction, Harry held his arm out slightly as Dumbledore approached.
"I am no Madam Pomfrey, but I believe you will be better by the time you wake up tomorrow," said Dumbledore.
Harry furrowed his brow in thought as the Headmaster's wand emitted a dull blue light over his wrist. "Did you capture any of them? Who was their leader? I didn't recognize his voice."
"We did indeed capture several of them, but I'm afraid their leader was not one of those. Most of the Death Eaters Apparated away as soon as the Order members began attacking. Apparently, they were not willing to fight once you had left." Dumbledore fished a bag of sherbet lemons out of his pocket and began to suck on one of them. "Would you like one?" He offered the bag to each person in the room. All of the Grangers declined, presumably because it was common knowledge that all the sweets in Dumbledore's possession contained loads of sugar.
"The attack was not orchestrated by Voldemort, Harry. What little intelligence we received about it points to a rogue set of Death Eaters acting on their own. Naturally, their actions have alerted us that Voldemort has been busy recruiting—a fact that Voldemort was probably trying to keep from the Order." His eyes were twinkling again, and there was a hint of amusement in his voice. "I don't think he is at all happy with those who participated in tonight's assault."
Harry thought about the situation at his uncle's house and asked, "Professor? What does this mean for Privet Drive? Will I have to go back there?"
Dumbledore sighed heavily. "You will not be returning to Privet Drive this year. It is apparent that we will need to review the security arrangements surrounding number four, as it is unclear how the Death Eaters were able to discover that you lived there." He paused as if to consider something, then said, "Your things will be arriving here shortly."
Turning to Hermione's parents, he said, "I need to ask that you keep Mr. Potter here for a few days while I arrange for other accommodations."
Mark Granger spoke up first. "Normally, I would be delighted for one of Hermione's school friends to stay with us. Goodness knows how often she stays away during the holidays. But I need to know something, Headmaster." He fidgeted with the collar of his shirt and then asked, "How safe are we here with him?"
"An excellent question, Mark. While I cannot completely guarantee anybody's safety, as was evidenced tonight, I can tell you that there have been some spells placed on your home to ensure your protection for the time being. We will also increase the number of people on the normal watch to prevent a repeat of tonight's fiasco. And I will keep Harry with you only as long as is needed." The elderly wizard was currently admiring the Grangers' cordless phone, turning it over and over in his hands as if attempting to discover its purpose.
Mr. Granger seemed to consider this idea for a moment and looked at his wife for approval. She nodded her head in assent, and he turned to Dumbledore, saying, "All right. I'm worried, but I trust you, Professor, and everything I've heard tells me that Harry is a fine young man, worthy to be our guest." He smiled warmly at Harry, and Hermione beamed at her father.
Replacing the phone on its cradle, Dumbledore said, "Well, then. I'm off to fetch your things now, Harry. Perhaps you should get some rest." With a twinkling glance at the two teens, he Disapparated out of the house.
"Mr. Granger?" Harry asked tentatively.
"Call me Mark, Harry. And to answer your question, I'm happy to have you in our home. You won't be any trouble at all." For the first time since he had met the Grangers, Harry noticed how much Hermione was a mixture of her parents. Mark Granger was tall and had thinning brown-grey hair. The hair he had left on his head was slightly bushy like Hermione's, and Harry could imagine it being much more out of control when he was younger. Mark was of medium build and looked like he had played some kind of sport in his youth.
Mrs. Granger nodded her head at her husband and added, "Besides, Harry, Hermione has been pestering us since she got home to have a friend over, so now maybe we can have some peace." Hermione's mother was slender and had long fingers and elegantly shaped hands. Her hair was curly but much more restrained than her daughter's. Anne's face was pleasantly shaped, and he could see the similarity between her and the pretty girl Hermione had become.
Harry let out a sigh and said, "Thank you, Mrs.—I mean Anne. I'm happy to be here, too." He looked over at Hermione, who was still beaming.
She stifled a yawn, grabbed Harry's good hand, and pulled him off the sofa. "Come on, Harry, let's get your room ready."
They marched upstairs, and Harry tested his wrist for flexibility. It already seemed to be as good as ever, but he knew from experience that he would have to be careful with it until it was fully healed.
Hermione led him into a small room that was lined with filled bookshelves. "I'll get you some clean sheets," she said and continued along the hallway.
Harry looked out the door and noted that the room opposite must be Hermione's. Although it was also filled with books, it was decorated in Gryffindor red and gold. There were pictures of Hermione, Ron, and him together at various times during the last five years. While he didn't know what a girl's room was supposed to look like, it was definitely cleaner than any of the boys' rooms he'd been in.
When Hermione returned, they busied themselves with getting the small bed ready for him to sleep. They heard another crack and voices downstairs. Then one final crack sounded, and the voices stopped.
"I guess my stuff is here. Let's get it moved up here; then we can get some sleep." Harry yawned, as if to show he was indeed tired.
Once his things had been moved, Harry made to change into his pajamas but stopped when he realized that Hermione was still in the room. She was looking at him strangely, but he shook it off as her just being tired.
"Um, I guess I'll change now," he prodded gently.
"Oh. Right," she mumbled nervously. "I'll see you tomorrow. Good night." She left the room somewhat hurriedly and shut the door behind her.
Harry changed and climbed into bed, trying desperately to not think about the attack or the faces of the two helpless little girls.
A large staircase appeared before Harry. It was very wide, about ten yards from side to side. There was a brass handrail in the middle of the staircase that extended its entire length, but there were no railings on the sides. It simply dropped off on the edges.
Harry walked up to the edge of the stairs and peered tentatively down the side. There was a huge drop-off, about twenty yards, and a raging river churned around jagged rocks at the bottom. Harry wasn't normally afraid of heights, but something about this chasm sent a chill of fear up his spine.
Looking back up the stairs, he felt compelled to climb them. Grabbing the railing with his left hand, he felt a feeling of peace and confidence fill him, and he began climbing. The stairs stopped every now and then to reveal a small platform, and the going became easier for a moment. But the railing was always there. The farther he traveled, the more urgent it seemed to reach whatever destination lay before him.
Almost without warning, a large, black cloud moved in and enveloped him. It was thick and moist, cutting off all light. A piercing cold crept into him, and he began to shudder. He folded his arms tightly against himself to keep in as much heat as possible, letting go of the railing to do so. As soon as his hand left the railing, the confidence and urgency he felt earlier left him and were replaced with despair and uncertainty.
The mist was so thick that he couldn't see anything around him. He groped desperately for the railing but quickly lost all sense of direction. In his misery, he called out for help, but the mist halted his cries almost before they left his mouth. He stepped to his left when he thought he heard something move, but his foot didn't hit the step as he expected. He fell through the air until he cleared the mist, and then he saw the jagged rocks below him. He screamed and tried to brace himself for the impact, but it never came.
Harry woke up shaking uncontrollably, feeling colder than he had at any other time in his life. He tried to pull his covers closer, but they just didn't seem to be holding in any warmth. After his teeth started chattering loudly, he decided that even Dementors hadn't made him feel this cold. Only the fact that he didn't hear screaming inside his head kept him from panicking.
A noise from the hall startled him, but it was impossible for him to shake any harder, so instead, he turned his head and saw a blurry form enter the room. He heard a muffled cry of concern and felt a warm touch on his face. Then the covers lifted, and something maddeningly warm got in the bed next to him. It was so wonderful that Harry scarcely noticed the two arms holding him tightly. He rolled over and snuggled his back close to the warmth, and slowly, the shaking ebbed, and his body relaxed.
After a long while, Harry's senses returned, and he again detected the warm and soft weight against his back. The familiar scent of apples and cinnamon helped him recognize what it was, or more precisely, who it was. Hermione's hand was on his stomach, and with a small start, he realized that it was under his pajama top and trembling slightly against his skin. Harry also detected that her breathing was short and quick, something that clearly indicated she wasn't asleep. Harry's breathing also quickened, as a new sensation coursed through his body. It was night, he was in a bed with a pretty girl, and he liked it.
He rolled over and came face to face with Hermione, looking into her wide, brown eyes. She gazed back at him searchingly as her hands now were holding onto his back. She didn't move them away, however, and he could feel her breath on his face. Harry knew that she got into his bed to help him warm up, but she didn't seem to want to leave. He was warm now, and she didn't need to stay. So why was she still there?
Harry could see her face clearly at this distance, lit by the moonlight shining through the window. There was an expression on it he had never seen before. It was open, vulnerable, and searching. Almost without thinking about it, Harry saw Hermione for the first time as someone other than his best friend. His ability to reason vanished, and he sank farther into her tight embrace. It felt so good.
Something inside Harry changed at that moment, as if he finally realized that this was the key to something locked and hidden deep within himself—something that he needed badly but that had been bottled up his entire life. No one had ever held him like this before. No one had ever looked at him like this and made him feel wanted. The only thing that penetrated his mind at this point was desire. Voldemort, Ron, Dumbledore, and Hermione's parents all vacated his thoughts, leaving only this feeling.
As if by unspoken agreement, they moved their faces closer together. Harry noticed that her face tilted ever so slightly, and he licked his lips in anticipation. Their noses brushed, and a spark flew between them. They moved closer, and her eyes fluttered closed. Finally, the moment was at hand, and their lips met.
They kissed each other, searching desperately for something that simply wasn't there. Her lips were soft and warm, but even Cho's kiss had sent a chill of excitement through him. Kissing Hermione wasn't passionate, no matter how much they both tried to force it.
It was weird.
They pulled back from each other with surprised looks on their faces. Hermione brought her hands up to cover her eyes, and Harry could feel that her shoulders were shaking. Is she crying? he thought.
"I'm sorry, Hermione. Please don't cry," he whispered.
The shaking got worse, and he was about to panic. Then she moved her hands, and he saw a big grin plastered on her face. His relief was the only thing keeping him from being upset.
"You know, it's not polite to laugh after kissing someone..." he explained quietly, through a barely suppressed grin.
That was all it took for her to lose what little control she had, and a giggle escaped. It seemed abnormally loud in the quiet house.
"Shhh!" he whispered.
Getting control of her giggles, she whispered back, "Sorry. I'm sorry."
They looked at each other again, and Harry realized that the desire he felt earlier was long gone. The pretty girl had been replaced with his best friend, and although he still felt that wonderful embrace they shared, it no longer left him filled with passion.
"So," Hermione started. "Right."
"Yeah," Harry offered lamely.
"No offense or anything, but...."
Harry muffled a snort. "How could I be offended?"
"Well, let's just say that that would have been better if you had red hair." She shrugged, and a smiled formed again on her lips.
Harry said with surprising ease, "I thought there was something between you two."
She guffawed but didn't offer any other form of reply.
"Hermione," he whispered soberly. "I—I want to thank you for warming me up."
"You're welcome, Harry. Honestly, it just popped into my head. I took a first-aid class just before I started at Hogwarts, and they said to share body heat when someone was suffering from hypothermia." She paused and scrunched her brow in thought. "Although, it is odd that you were so cold in a warm room in the middle of summer," she finished reflectively.
Harry thought about this for a moment and said, "I was having this strange dream...."
Hermione's eyes widened. "Was it about You-Know-Who?"
"No, no," he said, shaking his head. "It was about this odd staircase...and a freezing fog that was colder than anything I've ever felt before." He looked up at her concerned expression and added, "My scar doesn't even tingle, so don't worry about it, okay?"
Her face softened, and she put her hand on his forehead. "Well, you feel a bit warm now, so I'd say it's all fixed."
Harry smiled and said, "What happened? Just now, I mean. You may only be the second girl I've kissed, but it seemed very...odd. Like I was kissing...."
"Your sister?" she suggested.
"Exactly!" he said, a little louder than he intended. "Don't get me wrong, I wanted to kiss you, and...well...you are rather pretty. But...it was...weird." He could feel himself blush a little at the memory.
Her eyebrows shot up, and she said, "I know! That's exactly how I felt. When I first saw you tonight, I couldn't help noticing how you've changed...how mature you are now." She stilled, and her eyes focused on his lips again. "To be perfectly honest, I've been wanting to do that for a couple of years."
"What?" he asked with surprise.
"Well, ever since that Skeeter woman wrote about us being...well...together, I've thought that it would be nice to try it. Just to see if there could be...well...anything there, you know?"
Suddenly, she caught him up in another kiss. As much as he wanted to feel something, much like their first experience, they just didn't seem to connect. Finally pulling away from each other, they took in each other's faces to gauge the other's reaction.
"Nothing," he said with resigned conviction.
Nodding her head in agreement, she said, "Well, I guess we can't say we didn't try. It's just that I don't feel anything. At least, nothing like how it was with Viktor—" She clamped her hand over her mouth as soon as she realized what she'd said.
"You kissed Krum?" Harry's voice was now much louder than a whisper, and they heard a sound at the wide-open door to Harry's room. Hermione jumped from the bed and ran to leave but stopped short. Harry couldn't see anything, now that she was farther away from him.
"H-Hi, Mum. Fancy seeing you here," Hermione said lamely.
"Indeed, young lady. Get back to bed, and stay there. We'll talk about this in the morning." The note of finality in her mother's voice stayed any argument that Hermione might have put forth, and she walked back to her room. Mrs. Granger closed the door to Harry's room, and he threw himself back onto his pillow.
He listened carefully for the sound of Hermione's door and tried to let sleep overtake him again, but he could only toss and turn as shame burned within him. After Hermione's parents had taken him into their home at great personal risk, given him a bed to sleep in, and offered him so much, he had betrayed them. Harry felt absolutely horrible. Not so much from the kiss, as from having been caught with Hermione in his bed. Sleep would not come easy tonight for Harry Potter.
Morning sun filtered through the wooden slats of the partially open window and onto Harry's face, forming odd geometric patterns. He stretched groggily and opened his eyes to an unfamiliar setting. Then he remembered the attack, the Portkey to the Grangers', the dream, and the kiss. Bloody hell! He rolled over to face the doorway where Hermione had run into her mother the night before, and he groaned. He was in big trouble.
Thinking back on last night, Harry understood that it was simply one of those moments of weakness, where the situation overcame his natural sense. After all, he was a normal teenage boy with normal teenage hormones, and Hermione was quite pretty, really. Then there was the undeniable evidence that there was nothing special about the kiss they shared, and he now had no misconceptions about his feelings for her. She was a friend, and that was it. He knew things were okay with Hermione; the problem would be facing Hermione's parents.
Steeling his resolve, he got up, ran a hand through his hair, and went downstairs.
Hermione was the only one in the house and was busy tidying the kitchen when Harry arrived downstairs. He dragged his feet into the kitchen and sat heavily on a chair. "Good morning," he said.
"Hello, Harry," she answered cheerfully. "What would you like to eat?"
Harry didn't want to inconvenience her, and so he tried to think of the simplest thing she could make for him. "How about some cereal?"
She searched through the pantry and extracted three different kinds for him to choose from, setting the boxes on the table in a neat row.
"Thanks," he said. "Hermione—"
"Listen, Harry, about last night," she said, cutting him off. "Mum was really hacked off this morning, but I explained it all to her. About how cold you were...that I was just trying to get you warmed up...and that nothing happened." She was looking furtively around the kitchen as he poured his cereal.
"So you didn't tell her about the kiss?"
"No." Her voice was firm and resolute. "She doesn't need to know about that. I mean...we're not going out or anything, right?" Hermione's eyes finally met his.
"Absolutely not. I think we both are clear on that count." They grinned at each other, and the matter was dropped. "But don't think I'm going to forget about the thing with Krum."
She gave him a horrified look and threw a dish cloth at him.
Harry cheerfully finished his breakfast and did the washing-up in the sink. Hermione put away the cereal boxes, wiped the table, and said something under her breath about slovenly boys. They went to the living room and sat on opposite ends of the sofa, and Harry began to fidget with the buttons on his pajamas.
"Hermione?" She looked over at him without answering. "Could I ask you a question?"
"Sure, Harry," she offered cheerfully. "What are friends for?"
"Right. About that," Harry said, scratching his head and considering his words carefully. "I'm actually sort of relieved that things didn't work out between us...that way."
Hermione looked at him quizzically but offered no comment.
Harry blew out his breath a little, forging ahead. "I know someone who would be very put out if you and I got into the habit of snogging."
Hermione's eyes widened, and she looked on the verge of asking who, but restrained herself.
A chuckle escaped from Harry's mouth, and Hermione swatted him on the arm. "What's so funny?"
"Just you. You really have no idea, do you?" He gained control of his laughter and said, "Oh, don't act so surprised, Hermione. You know exactly who I mean."
She was shaking her head vigorously. "There isn't anyone who wants me for that. The only thing I'm good for is my brain..." she finished morosely.
"Come off it. Who has been jealous of every mention of the word ‘Krum'? Who picks fights with you just to get your attention?" He paused to let her think a minute, then asked, "Who got you perfume for Christmas?"
Hermione's eyes slowly grew larger as each question was asked. "You mean...."
"Yes!" he shouted. "Quit being so daft about it. I swear...the two of you are both thicker than cauldron bottoms."
She sat there in disbelief, her jaw working wordlessly as she tried to think of a response. Finally, she said quietly, "How can you be so sure?"
"Because I have eyes, Hermione." Harry thought for a moment and then said, "Ever see how he looks at the tables in the Great Hall before the Sorting Ceremony begins? Like he can't wait for the moment when he can eat? He looks at you the same way." Hermione's eyes were darting about the room, as if searching for the answer to a question. "It's too bloody obvious!" Harry continued. "Everyone knows how you feel about each other. Even Seamus and Dean have mentioned it to Ron. Of course, he just blew them off...."
"Wait a minute," she interrupted. "You're saying everyone knows that I like Ron and he likes me, but we haven't figured it out?"
Her face returned to the confident expression Harry knew so well—the one she had on when she found out she scored 114% on a Charms exam. She was silent for a long while. Then she leaned over and whispered in Harry's ear, "Well, Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Things are going to be different this year."
Harry grinned at her and patted her on the back. "I just hope Ron survives," he whispered in reply.
They were startled by someone clearing their throat close by. Harry realized that they were still whispering and their heads were inches apart. Although he knew that nothing was going on, to anyone not privy to their conversation, it would seem less than innocent.
Hermione jumped back to her side of the sofa, and Harry straightened up to see Mrs. Granger looking at them with a smirk on her face. "So you are the one she's in love with," she said.
Harry's jaw dropped to his lap, and he shifted in his seat. "No, Mrs. Granger...it's not like that, you see.... We're just friends." For some reason, Harry couldn't get his thoughts in order, and he ended up sounding more guilty than not.
"Umm hmm," she said suspiciously.
"Mum, I told you about that this morning. He's my friend," Hermione said in exasperation. "Last night wasn't anything like that. We aren't going out, and we aren't in love."
Hermione's mother tutted and then said, "All right, but I know when a girl is in love, and you, my dear, are in love." Hermione blushed profusely at this pronouncement.
Harry finally found his mind was working properly, and he came to her defense. "It's not me, Mrs. Granger; it's our other friend, Ron."
Instead of looking grateful for Harry's involvement, Hermione glared at him and stood abruptly up from the sofa. "I can't believe you just said that, Harry." Then she stormed up to her room and slammed the door.
What was that all about? Harry wondered. He had just wanted to clear the air and make sure that the Grangers didn't think he was trying to take advantage of their daughter. Why would Hermione react so heatedly? "Girls," he muttered under his breath.
"Well, Harry. I would let her cool off a bit before I apologized."
"Apologize? What did I do?"
"Let's just say that telling a girl's mother about her love life isn't the best course of action—if you want to keep living." Anne had a knowing smirk on her face, the same one that irritated him so much on Hermione's face.
"Oh," was his sheepish response. "I'll just go and get changed, then."
With that, he went upstairs and tried desperately to come up with a good apology speech. Having the smartest witch at Hogwarts peeved at you was not good for your health.
Harry finished changing and began rifling through his trunk in search of a certain pile of parchment, thinking that maybe he could get on Hermione's good side again by having her look it over. One quick way to make her happy, he had learned over the years, was to display an interest in schoolwork. He hoped his early completion of this summer's homework would get her in a good enough mood to let him apologize.
He also wondered about the bookshop and if he would have to go in to work. Thinking about Aberforth's store led him to thinking about Katie and how she fit into the situation with Hermione. "What a mess," he said in exasperation.
As he gathered his essays together, he came across the replicating journal. The animals on the front cover were dancing, meaning that there was a message waiting. With a start, Harry realized that he hadn't thought about Ginny since the attack began last night. She must be overcome with worry if anyone had told her about it. And knowing Dumbledore, all of the Weasleys knew.
Opening it up, he saw a short message awaiting him. It had been written last night, about the time he and Hermione had been in his bed together....
Dumbledore came by tonight and said that you had been attacked. Please reply soon and tell me that you're all right. He said that you were fine and had taken a Portkey to Hermione's, but I need to hear it from you, Harry.
I overheard Bill telling Dad that the man leading the raid was Rodolphus Lestrange. If that's true, then I don't know if Voldemort wasn't the one who ordered the attack. Isn't his wife one of Voldemort's most loyal followers? If he was the one who led the attack, and he is still faithful to Voldemort, then I would guess it was planned. Harry, please be okay. I couldn't bear the thought of losing you. You mean so much to us.
Harry grabbed a quill and ink so he could reply immediately.
I'm fine. Everything is all right, and no one was hurt. I've been at Hermione's since last night, and I'm not going back to Privet Drive. Please don't worry about me, Ginny.
About Rodolphus: if he was the leader, then I think you may be right. I couldn't see anyone like the Lestranges going against Voldemort's will. Have you heard anything about how they found me? Dumbledore said that he was worried about that. I think it was because it might mean that other people the Order are protecting, like you and Hermione, could be in danger, too.
Ginny, I wonder what it's going to take to keep my friends safe. It seems that nothing anyone does helps. Even Dumbledore, the greatest sorcerer in the world, can't seem to keep us safe for long. Promise me something, Ginny. Promise me that no matter what happens to me, you will stay alive. Don't put your life on the line for me. I need to know that at least one of my friends will live after me and be happy.
He put the quill down and stared blankly at the journal while his mind wandered. Looking up, his gaze fell on Hermione's closed door across the hall. He needed to apologize for his comment downstairs, but he also needed some advice. Since their experiment last night, Harry and Hermione's relationship had changed. It was as if the kiss had erased a barrier, allowing them to be less guarded around each other. Harry needed someone he could be open with right now, and so he made up his mind and went to her door.
He knocked softly and heard Hermione say, "What do you want, Harry?"
"Hermione, I need to tell you something." There was a pause, so Harry continued. "It's pretty important. Can I come in?"
Silence settled around him while he waited for her reply. Then without warning, the door was yanked roughly open, and Hermione's tear-streaked face appeared in the doorway. She looked at his face for a moment as if to confirm his sincerity. "Come in," was her shaky reply.
They went into her room and sat on her bed. The door was open, so there wouldn't be any suspicion from her mother, but snogging was the last thing on his mind. He blew out a breath and gathered his wits.
"Hermione, I'm sorry for telling your mother about Ron. It wasn't my place, and I apologize." He waited for the axe to fall. In the past, Hermione had been the first to explode when someone had wronged her. Now, however, he didn't know what to expect.
"I don't care if my mother knows about Ron, Harry. What upset me was that you didn't give me the chance to tell her. I would like to have waited until something was happening first, you know." She smiled a little at him and then grabbed him into a tight hug. "I forgive you," she whispered into his ear.
They separated, and he said, "Thanks, Hermione. I need to be on your good side." They both chuckled, and Harry continued, "Look, I have a problem, and I need your advice."
She immediately put on her problem-solving face and waited for him to continue.
"Well, Ginny and I have been writing to each other for the past few days."
Hermione interrupted, saying, "But Harry, you aren't supposed to have been using owl post."
"I wasn't." He explained to her about the replicating journals and how they worked. "So we've been able to talk a bit, and I kept my sanity by having someone to communicate with."
"I'm so glad, Harry. It would have been horrible to be at your aunt and uncle's place without any contact with the outside." She leaned back on her bed to relax her shoulders.
Harry adjusted his position on the bed so that he was facing her. "So my problem is that Ginny and I are starting to be good friends, and I don't think it's such a good idea."
"I tried to tell her to back off at the beginning of summer holidays, but you know Ginny. She told me where to stick my letter." He was laughing softly at the memory.
"No one tells her what to do, that's for sure. But I still don't understand. What's the problem?"
"Come on, Hermione. It's Voldemort. The more friends I have, the more opportunity he has to kill one of them. If I don't make any more friends, there's less chance of him getting to them and less chance of me having to choose between any of you. I just want to make sure that you're safe, and I'd rather be lonely than risk any of you."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Well, that's being a bit stupid."
"That's what Ginny said," he said with an exasperated sigh. "Now I don't know what to do. Obviously, I can't just tell you or Ron to take a hike, but Ginny's friendship is new, so I feel like I can tell her to keep her distance. And it's not just Ginny...." He let that linger in the air a moment, staring at Hermione's confused face, before continuing. "I've been working at a bookshop this week with Katie Bell, and...."
"Katie Bell?" Hermione interjected. "That's a bit of interesting news..." she said with an appraising look.
"Why?" asked Harry.
"Well, it's just that Lavender overheard her telling someone that she, well...." Hermione hesitated.
"Well, what?" asked Harry desperately.
"She fancies you," Hermione answered simply.
Not completely shocked, but still a little surprised at such a blatant statement, Harry said, "Well, that explains things. She's been a little flirty with me and even took me out to lunch." Harry paused, thinking about their friendship. "I really didn't have a choice about being around her, seeing as we work together and all. But I don't want to keep being friends with her if there is a chance she could be in danger."
Hermione shook her head and waved a hand at him. "Harry, I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's all right to break off your friendships. It's not just about you, you know. Ginny and Katie have as much of a say in being your friend as you do. Of course, if you keep being stupid about it, they might be the ones ditching you."
This was not going at all the way he wanted. "Okay, so I'm not going to do something stupid about Ginny and Katie. I figured Ginny wouldn't give up that easy, and I just can't think about Katie right now. What I need now is to know what to do about everyone else: Neville, Luna, Seamus, and Dean. How do I protect them?"
"Oh, Harry. It's not that simple. You can't protect people by locking them away in a cupboard. Voldemort is too powerful for that. You know he'll find a way if that's how he wants to go about it."
Harry sighed resignedly. "I guess you're right...as usual," he added with a bit of humor. "I just feel so helpless, like I can't do anything but sit around until he attacks."
"You are not helpless," she said with conviction. "And since you can't abandon your friends, then let us help you."
"How can you do that?"
"Am I the smartest witch you know, or what?" she asked, her smile tinged with mischief. "I've been reading up on magical transportation, defensive spells, how to kill immortal beings..." she said nonchalantly.
"You've what?" he asked incredulously.
"Harry, you are going to need all the help you can get. I can teach us how to Apparate, make Portkeys, and even change around the Floo Network." Her eyes were alight with excitement. "I figure the best way to be prepared is to learn things that Voldemort won't be expecting."
Harry's face lit up in anticipation of being one step ahead of Voldemort. "You are a genius, Hermione!"
"One more thing...you'll need every friend you can find," she said seriously. "They're going to make all the difference in this fight. And besides...maybe you can find someone who'll want to be a different kind of friend," she added with a smirk.
Harry's eyes went wide, and a blush crept up his neck, as he thought about Katie's flirtations and how she hadn't stopped hinting that she liked him. It was one thing to catch her glancing his way, but quite another to hear her feelings verbalized. With a resigned sigh, he bid Hermione goodbye and went back to his room to think.
A/N: Please don't kill the author yet, as there is much he'd like to write before his death. Some of the Harry/Hermione interaction in this chapter came from the talented minds of Kokopelli and Caitlyn. It was Caitlyn and the posters on H/Hr thread who helped me to hone "the kiss" sequence to be what it is now. So if it's any good, the credit goes to them. If it stinks, then you can flame me; they had nothing to do with it. J Hopefully, this will put the final nail in the H/Hr coffin for my portion of the Potter-verse. Let me know what you think.